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Santa Monica City Council Votes to Close Airport by 2018
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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica


By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

July 28, 2016 -- The City Council voted 5-to-0 on Tuesday to close Santa Monica's century-old Airport by June 30, 2018 or when legally possible, although it was cautioned the near future is mired by lawsuits and the City’s battle for ultimate control with the federal government.

The Council’s action was preliminary and will return August 23 for a final vote. But with jet traffic still triggering complaints -- and the November 8 re-election bids of four Council Members nearing -- the council said it was time to send a clear message.

“As Woody Guthrie said, ‘This land is our land,’ “said Council Member Kevin McKeown. “It’s not the FAA’s land. It is our land and we want it back for other use.”

The council also asked staff to propose interim steps it can take to impose greater control of the airport, such as stopping the sale of fuel and jump starting the process for turning it into such uses as parkland.

In addition, the council asked for a report on ways of making the Airport safe from outside threats. The information requested will be presented along with the final motion.

“Knock on wood, nothing has happened,” said Mayor Tony Vazquez. “But given the times, we’re leaving ourselves open.”

During the City’s decades of trying to close the airport, previous city councils have adopted resolutions to stop aviation. Tuesday’s version was proposed by Vazquez and Council Member Ted Winterer, both of whom are running for new four-year terms this fall.

Also running again are Council Members Gleam Davis, who supported Tuesday’s motion, and Terry O’Day, who was absent.

McKeown said motions to close the airport were approved in the early 1980s and again four years ago, when he was the author. Residents, some of whose homes are only 300 feet from runway, already know the City wants the airport closed, he said.

So does the Federal Aviation Administration, which sided with the aviation industry last year in ruling that the City must keep the airport open until 2023, he noted (“FAA Rules Santa Monica Airport Must Stay Open,” December 7, 2015).

McKeown said every reminder is important. Council Member Sue Himmelrich said the motion also is a step the Council must take to prove its resolve to the courts.

“The courts need to respect us,” said Himmelrich, who is special counsel for Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Davis expressed a new urgency, noting a study released Monday by the Environmental Protection Agency found jet engine exhaust endangers human health and adds to climate change. Davis also supported interim actions.

“We are not sitting on our hands until such time as we close,” Davis said. “We’re not loping around.”

After the session, Winterer said the motion was "equally important" to dispel rumors that the City "wants to turn the Airport into a massive development.”

The Vazquez-Winterer agenda item called for “expressing the City Council’s intention to close the Santa Monica Airport to aviation use, as soon as that is legally permitted with a goal of June 30, 2018 and earlier if possible.”

It also requests language about beginning the transition of airport to new use, including the legal and planning processes that are necessary.

But City Manager Rick Cole cautioned that the federal government still has the final say on shutting the airport down.

“There are a lot of people who think we can tell the federal government to take a long walk off our reasonably long pier,” he said. “I understand that frustration and sentiment. But we can’t defy federal law. We uphold the Constitution of the United States.”

Cole said the City is already engaged in six lawsuits over the issue -- all of them costly.

“While I understand people are frustrated, I do ask for their patience,” he said. “This is not the City of Santa Monica against the federal government. This is a functionally obsolete airport that needs to be transitioned to other uses.”

Measure LC, which was approved by Santa Monica voters in 2014, keeps decision making in the hands of the council and gives voters a chance to weigh in on general guidelines for development on the airport property in the event the facility closes ("Opinions Vary on Reasons for Lopsided Ballot Measure Results," November 6, 2014).

Cole told the council Tuesday that the City already is actively doing what it can to control the 227-acre airport.

City officials are in the planning stages of creating Airport Park and doubling its size, and has evicted Justice Aviation, which was the airport’s largest aviation tenant, Cole said.

A new policy has eliminated sub-leases, giving the City more power over uses, and the City has started two phases of plans to inspect airport fuel tanks.

Cancer-warning signs are now posted at the airport as well, although the City is not legally required to do so, Cole said.

Several speakers at Tuesday night’s meeting supported the council's motion, though nearly all asked for quicker action and swifter evictions of tenants.

A couple of the speakers, however, argued that closing the airport would eliminate well-paying jobs and push air traffic to local airports in Hawthorne and Van Nuys.

One homeowner said supporters of closing the airport are watching intently as four council incumbents campaign to retain their seats this fall.

“We will vigorously hold the City Council accountable in the upcoming election,” Steve Unger, a longtime resident, said after pleading for airport closure as soon as possible.

A representative of Los Angeles City Council Member Mike Bonin, whose district includes the Westside, appeared with a letter also supporting the motion.

In advance of the council's vote, Friends of Sunset Park, a neighborhood group, published City statistics showing 6,339 landings and take offs in June alone, with 1,393 involving jets -- a 14 percent increase from June 2015 and a 32 percent increase from June 2012.

The numbers, which a spokesperson said were obtained from the Airport Commission's July 25 meeting, also showed repeated violations of noise and other voluntary restrictions, the group said.

U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, whose district includes Santa Monica, also recently asked the federal General Accountability Office to investigate the FAA decision to keep the airport open until 2023 (“Congressman Seeks Probe of Santa Monica Airport Ruling,” July 20, 2016).

Council Member Pam O’Connor was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

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